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New Program Seeks to Curb Childhood Obesity

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation pledged $500 million over the next five years to combat the recent increase in childhood obesity rates.

“It’s clear that this is one of the largest, if not the largest, threat to our nation currently and it’s preventable,” said foundation President Risa Lavizzo-Mourey. “The younger generation is going to live sicker and die younger than their parents because of obesity.”

According to figures from the Centers for Disease Control, the percentage of overweight children ages 6 to 19 has more than tripled in the past 30 years. On a similar note, the foundation estimates that about 25 million of the more than 74 million children under the age of 17 are obese or overweight.

The foundation plans on focusing its efforts on children in poor and urban neighborhoods, where access to nutritious foods and opportunities for outdoor exercise are limited. Initial investments will be in pushing local governments to become more proactive in fighting childhood obesity by creating safe-play spaces outdoors and in general research focused on understanding the epidemic.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the primary funder of the NewsHour’s health unit, is one of the wealthiest grant makers in the United States, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy. The foundation has $9.8 billion in assets and was a major backer of anti-teenage smoking initiatives in the 1990s, spending $446 million toward that goal.

This commitment comes amid a national movement by other foundations, governments and private businesses to bring an end to childhood obesity. In 2000, the California Endowment contributed $38 million to improve the situation among inner-city students in Los Angeles. Another major initiative is underway at Arkansas schools, launched by then-Gov. Mike Huckabee and the William J. Clinton Foundation.

Under Arkansas’ plans, schools sent home “obesity report cards” to parents that underlined the health risks of childhood obesity, made changes to their cafeteria menus, and increased class time for physical education.

In May 2006, the three leading soft drink producers agreed to remove sodas and sweetened drinks from vending machines in schools after negotiations with the Clinton Foundation and the American Heart Association.

A 2005 opinion poll from the Harvard School of Public Health showed that three-quarters of Americans cite obesity as an “extremely” or “very” serious heath risk.